Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Hong Kong Arts Festival

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 January, 2013, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Cultural Centre Concert Hall

Reviewed: January 28

Monday’s concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was the opening programme of the 41st Hong Kong Arts Festival in all but name; the champagne won’t be officially popped until February 21 when the curtain goes up on the American Ballet Theatre.

Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director and scheduled conductor for the evening, was indisposed; Lorin Maazel was his brand-name replacement. The 82 year-old is listed as having conducted the New York Philharmonic on Saturday evening, so how he arrived in time is probably a story in itself. Investment in big names, however, doesn’t necessarily produce returns.

It was a straightforward programme – just two core repertoire symphonies. The opening movement of Mozart’s Symphony No 41, Jupiter, sounded like a cautious play-through to check the notes (and some in the first few bars needed scrutiny). There was little spirit of the age in this flat-line performance that largely ironed out Mozart’s melodic inflections and impeded the underlying exuberance.

The second movement was less of a colourful interaction between diverse characters, more of an uninspired conversation that went nowhere, while the light, dance-related third movement tried to glide out on rubber soles. The finale has Mozart mischievously revelling in baroque-flavoured counterpoint, but this interpretation went for academia in a grump rather than Bach in a twinkle.

The approach to Brahms’ Symphony No 2 was equally questionable. The promising lilt of the opening bars quickly dissipated, leading to passages that can be described only as elephantine; Maazel excised Brahms’ repeat of the exposition, equivalent to removing more than a quarter of the ballast, which had no artistic merit. The bass trombone and tuba players gave a convincing impression of having nodded off during the second movement, in which structural sections were taken at different speeds by Maazel as if on a whim. The finale played the convenient card of hammering out the closing pages as loudly as possible, but it hardly felt like the keystone of a carefully crafted account of the work.

The orchestra’s fresh sound and clean blend was the one plus of the evening.